Where do birds go in a hurricane? People either take refuge from the storm or try to ride it out. How about birds, though? What happens to them?
It is a common question, and often one filled with mystery. But, is it really a secret? Not really.
Quite naturally, birds need to find shelter to avoid the damaging effects of a hurricane. So, where do birds go during a hurricane?
Birds can either leave the region, fly ahead of or into the storm, or seek shelter from the elements in the event of a severe storm.
Can Birds Sense Hurricanes?
Many experts believe that birds can predict hurricanes. This is especially true for birds with a high degree of sensitivity to changes in barometric pressure.
It also includes birds with the ability to hear infrasound.
Birds in the path of a major storm may alter their behavior within the context of their own life histories and seasonal norms in order to survive.
An Example to Consider
Take the example of white-throated sparrows, which are migratory songbirds.
They may leave earlier than they normally would if a severe storm were to approach during their annual spring or fall journey.
Researchers have shown that sparrows adjust the timing of their autumn migration to lower barometric pressures (but not lower temperatures).
Similarly, they adjust the timing of their spring migration to lower temperatures (but not lower barometric pressures).
Is it Possible for Birds to Sense Hurricanes?
It is unclear how birds can sense hurricanes, but their behavior changes a little in the wake of a storm.
A hundred miles out to sea, you can spot frigatebirds cruising the tropical oceans’ coastlines.
These birds can fly thousands of miles on air currents without getting fatigued, as they can ride them for weeks at a time.
In fact, they can cover up to 260 miles in a day for up to 48 days straight.
However, these birds live alone but seeing them in large numbers usually means that bad weather is to come.
This shows how birds change their normal behavior when they sense barometric pressure changes.
Where Do Birds Go in a Hurricane?
As birds can sense a change in temperature and pressure, they usually know when it is time to find shelter.
But when it comes to determining where birds go in a hurricane, you will notice them choose between two strategies:
- They evacuate the area
- They stay and take shelter
Let’s talk more about these strategies and any other alternatives for birds in a hurricane.
Evacuation: The Flight Strategy
In the face of a hurricane’s onslaught, one of the most prevalent responses from birds is to flee the area.
Long-distance migratory birds, including the sooty tern and the black skimmer, frequently employ this strategy.
These birds take to the air when they detect the approach of a cyclone and travel hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometers to avoid it.
Birds rely heavily on their innate powers of flying and navigation in their escape plan.
In addition to using landmarks, star patterns, and even smells, many migrating birds can use the Earth’s magnetic field to help them find their way.
Fact: The precise mechanisms by which different talents of birds contribute to their storm avoidance continue to be a topic of ongoing study.
Problem with the Flight Strategy
For small birds, the strategy of migrating before or during a cyclone can be fraught with danger and have unintended consequences.
For instance, in 2005, Hurricane Wilma swept up flocks of chimney swifts, and the lucky survivors migrated to Western Europe, much to the joy of bird observers there.
Like other small migratory birds, the migrating chimney swifts were likely caught inside the eye of the hurricane.
In 2016, for instance, while Hurricane Matthew raged across Florida, radar photos revealed that the storm had huge flocks of birds trapped in its eye.
Taking a Shelter: The Stay Strategy
During a hurricane, not all birds can or will leave their homes.
Birds that do not migrate or are not well-suited for long flights may stay put during bad weather.
Woodpeckers and nuthatches, for example, would often seek shelter during severe weather in the cracks and cavities of trees.
How well this plan works will depend on how dangerous the hurricane is and where those birds decide to take refuge.
High winds, heavy rain, and the possibility of having their habitat destroyed pose higher threats to these birds than those that migrate.
An Important Consideration
The thick bushes and the trees’ leeward sides provide cover for many birds that do not migrate.
In addition to shielding birds from the rain, trees and plants can significantly lower wind speeds.
Fact: Birds have evolved to curl their feet tightly when they are at rest or asleep, making it far simpler for them to cling to a perch for dear life.
The Unfortunate Scenario
It is true that some birds decide to leave the area and others look for shelter. But, some unlucky ones encounter a third scenario.
The unfortunate truth is that not all birds are successful in their attempts to flee hurricanes or reach a safe haven.
Because of the inherent unpredictability of these strong storms, accurate anticipation and response pose a significant barrier for birds and all other forms of life.
Hurricanes can catch birds, especially those less attuned to weather changes or unable to flee in time. There are tremendous forces at play.
Strong winds and whirling air currents can knock these birds off their perches and throw them into the eye of a hurricane.
This gloomy situation is like a feather being swept away by a gust of wind, except on a far larger, more destructive scale.
Fact: Sometimes, birds make it through this harrowing trip in a hurricane, only to be abandoned in foreign regions hundreds or thousands of miles from their homes.
The Loss of Lives
Because of Hurricane Wilma’s extensive and devastating effects, chimney swifts became extremely rare in Canada, which was previously their preferred home.
There was an estimated 50% drop in the chimney swift population the next year while roost counts dropped by an average of 62%.
There is a high positive association between the frequency of tropical storms, especially hurricanes, and the number of “wrecked” birds found throughout the Caribbean.
Surprisingly, until bird populations become negligible, we do not have much solid data on how storms affect them.
How Do Birds Recover after a Hurricane?
The return of bird populations to pre-hurricane levels can be a long and difficult process.
Many species have had to relocate or adapt because human activity has destroyed or drastically altered their natural habitats.
Of course, even if birds make it through a cyclone and make it back to their homes, they still face decades of habitat loss.
Adjusting in Changed Landscape
A hurricane’s aftermath is generally characterized by a strikingly altered landscape.
Birds that return or awaken after a storm find their surroundings radically altered, which could be due to many factors, such as:
- The destruction of forests
- The flooding of wetlands
- The erosion of coastal areas
This abrupt change poses formidable obstacles to their continued existence and full recovery.
Issues Finding Food
Birds must be able to quickly adjust to new conditions.
Because the post-storm environment is unlikely to support their usual diet, they may need to diversify their food sources.
It is possible that human activity has rendered their traditional nesting areas unusable, forcing them to relocate.
On top of that, avian refugees have to find their way around the new places the storm tossed them.
They need to be able to spot potential dangers, like new predators or territorial disputes with native birds, and seize opportunities, like previously undiscovered food supplies or nesting places.
An Example to Consider
When Hurricane Hugo hit in 1989, it destroyed a large portion of the old-growth forest that the red-cockaded woodpeckers relied on for survival.
The Francis Marion National Forest had 477 colonies of red-cockaded woodpeckers, but only 100 remained after Hurricane Hugo.
Fact: Woodpeckers can find new habitat in flooded areas, and waterfowl can find refuge in wetlands.
Where do birds go in a hurricane? Birds can leave the area in anticipation of a hurricane or look for shelter. They may even find them battling with the hurricane.
Moreover, changed ecosystems can present new challenges and opportunities, and some bird populations have proven to be remarkably resilient and adaptable.